Teaching Today’s Students

Many thanks to Dan and the crew for inviting me to join them for a couple of weeks.

From time to time here and at other law professor blogs, the subject of “teaching today’s generation of students” comes up — usually in the context of whether laptop use and/or wireless Internet access should be curtailed in the classroom. I’d be interested in hearing readers’ thoughts on this subject more generally.

Initially, of course, one should ask whether “today’s generation of students” has any meaning beyond the descriptive — in other words, whether students today are different in kind, rather than simply in degree, from our own classmates. I think they are, and in important ways. Students today are a more diverse group in terms of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, financial status, political views, family situations, work experience, and life experience. (That’s not to say that earlier generations were exceedingly less diverse in each of these areas, but those students may have felt less able to engage in a public discourse about some of these facets of their identities.) Students today have been raised on a diet of popular culture and instant communication, resulting in shorter attention spans and higher demands on faculty to use technology in the classroom. They are fluent Internet users but do not always have a similarly developed ability to be intelligent consumers of information — to distinguish reliable sources of information from less reliable sources of information. Finally, some students today see themselves as consumers of an educational service, which manifests itself in the way they treat the classroom experience (choosing to attend class or not, expecting (and requesting) a certain type of classroom experience or procedure, and so forth).

Is this an accurate description? And, if so, how should faculty respond to these issues, if at all?

Some responses are more easily considered because, to my mind, they don’t raise any major pedagogical issues: being sensitive to the diverse backgrounds of our students in the kinds of cases we teach or discussions we lead, for example. Some responses are a bit more difficult because, while often pedagogically sound, they may require some of us to modify the way we teach. I tend to incorporate technology into my classes (PowerPoint, Blackboard, and so forth) both because I enjoy doing so and because (I hope) it appeals to visual learners; others may be resistant for reasons relating to a belief that such things are merely “bells and whistles” that distract more than they assist. Finally, some responses are even more difficult because, to some of us, they result in a head-on conflict with our sense of what a law school class should be. Students may want (or think they want) heavy doses of black-letter law, frequent viewings of TV and movie clips, and the ability to attend class when they choose, but to what extent should professors accommodate those desires?

I’ve been thinking about these questions recently because I’ve just had a chance to watch a rebroadcast of the HBO special “Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl”, in which actor/comedian Robert Wuhl teaches a 30-minute history class in front of a group of NYU undergraduates. The theme of the class is fairly uncontroversial: History is essentially narrative, and not all narrators are reliable. Wuhl presents this as “how pop culture becomes history,” by which he means “whoever the most popular person is at that point in time.” (I don’t think he actually means “popular” in the way he says he does, but that’s beside the point.) But what brought out the curmudgeon in me (and me alone, judging from the laudatory reviews the show has received) is the way in which Wuhl taught the class: a nonstop barrage of Monty Python-esque cartoons, gratuitous pop culture references, mindless call-and-response exercises, wacky stand-up–like patter, a heavy dose of scatological language — and, in the end, not much substance for thirty minutes of work.

I recognize that the class was being televised (and was based on an earlier stage performance), so entertainment value is the primary metric here. But many of the reviews, so far as I could tell, said something along the lines of “This is college as it should be,” or “He’s the teacher everyone wishes they had in college.” And all I could think was: Really? Is this now the way to teach college (or law) students today? Don’t they deserve a bit more — indeed, shouldn’t they expect a bit more? I’m by no means suggesting that the classroom experience shouldn’t be enjoyable or even entertaining from time to time — I hope that my classroom is both. But if Wuhl is now the model, aren’t we risking putting style over substance in trying to reach “today’s generation of students”?

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15 Responses

  1. John Jenkins says:

    I don’t think there is any difference among generations of law students as far as pedagogy goes. The so-called “Socratic Method” is boring, as well as aggravating, because professors spend way too much time with the clueless while the rest of the class has it and is ready to move on.

    Because of this, the classes are boring and students seek distractions. It’s the same problem of every other school, you can only go as fast as the slowest person. With more people in law school (and more law schools) invariably, the LCD is lower than before, so things take longer and are more boring (the same thing applies in undergrad because there are more students than ever).

    Add to that attendance policies, given that what passes for classroom discussion is repeating freshman philosophy tropes and the above-noted recitations, and you have a recipe for apathy and aggravation (I’m going on two years with both-I wish they would just let me take the stupid bar exam now).

    If people don’t have laptops, when they get bored they just doodle or do the crossword in the student newspaper (or the Sudoku, but that’s only worth 2-3 minutes). If the instructors were more demanding (i.e. there was more actual content to the classes, instead of what passes for content now), then things would be less boring. That’s what I really, REALLY don’t get about the whole process. Because people are getting bored and apathetic, we want to make things easier and in smaller bites, except that’s WHY we’re freaking bored in the first place.

  2. John Armstrong says:

    I think that what you say about students’ expectations is true (full disclosure: I teach mathematics to undergraduates, not law to law students), but I find that they are open to different ways of doing things as long as those ways are consistent.

    I always open the first day of lecturing with a clear statement of my intentions, goals, and expectations of the students and they, for the most part, rise to meet them. I make it clear that there is no part of the grading rubric for what a student needs to maintain scholarships or parental approval. I tell them what assignments and exams occur when, and that they are free to prepare for those in whatever method they choose.

    Students are nominally adults, and I presume them capable of making their own rational decisions given a clear list of criteria. My title is “instructor”, not “babysitter”, and I think the students respond positively to being told that their performance is in their own hands.

  3. Aaron A. says:

    I am a 1L at a top-tier law school in the midweest. I did fairly well in my undergraduate studies, but was often terribly bored by classroom “discussions,” which rarely resembled anything less than a professor led lecture. I sometimes find it difficult to stay focused on what is going on in my law classes, and for similar reasons discussed by the first comment: I’ve done the readings for class, I’ve thought about complex applications of the material, and the classroom experience is redundant at best, and at worst, sometimes completely unnecessary.

    I came to law school with very high expectations regarding classroom experience. I may be far from the norm, but watching the Paperchase in undergrad actually strengthened my resolve to go to law school, instead of scaring me off. I’d read up on the socratic method, and anticipated this pure academic model, where the professor didn’t have to focus on the simplistic facts from the reading, but on learning to apply those facts to new situations. Needless to say, I’ve been disappointed thus far, as I’ve noticed professors often, either purposefully or by habit, switch into lecture mode and proceed to talk to a semi-engaged classroom for long periods of time.

    When I asked one of my professors about what I considered the demise of the socratic method, I was told that such an “adversarial system” simply couldn’t be implemented well in today’s classrooms, as the students demand something less confrontational, and if you don’t give in to these demands, they’ll simply go to another law school. This may be true. Maybe it is not. Maybe the kind of student that would choose to attend a different school because the classroom experience is less vigorous is not the kind of student you should want to attend your law school in any case. Maybe proudly displaying the (now) uniqueness of your classroom experience would bring in a whole new class of applicants, students like myself who wish to be challenged instead of coddled, who wish to learn how to apply the law and not just to be able to understand it.

    That’s just my two cents, I hope those who read it can find if useful.

  4. Cathy says:

    I don’t think the socratic method is key to a rigorous classroom experience. At my school I rarely encountered it, but I would hardly say I was coddled. I was educated, and, for the most part, effectively.

    In fact, it’s interesting, because the one class I had which did have the socratic method (in full-on, scary mode) is one where I did the worst in, grade-wise. I did all the readings – I had to, out of fear of being called on! – but ultimately my (disproportionately massive) efforts for that class ended up all being so defensive that I never really was able to get around to the learning part.

  5. Aaron A says:

    Cathy, I think you make a very valid point, and I don’t think that my comment should be perceived in any way to be in disagreement with yours. I am not advocating the position that the classroom experience should be “scary”, but that it should at least be more than lecture.

    I’m glad that you didn’t feel coddled, and I’m sure you weren’t, but the simple truth remains that there is less “chance” for coddling when the socratic method is used.

    What I’d really prefer is just a higher degree of focus on application instead of simple understanding, because it has been my experience that material is “learned” with much more clarity and usefulness if taught in an applicatory manner, which is much different than material that is simply explained in a lecture.

  6. ambimb says:

    Just one little note about today’s law students compared to those from the past: They are paying much more for every minute of class time. If they they think of themselves more as consumers and seem to be more demanding, the fact that they’re mortgaging their futures to be there might have something to do with that.

    While I admire your attempt to think about how to become a better teacher of law, I’m skeptical of your ability to do so in the current system. Today’s model of huge classes will never satisfy students or even challenge most of them. How can one teacher, no matter how dynamic or learned or enthusiastic, possibly engage 100 students at a time w/all their different levels of preparation, different interests, and different questions? It’s an impossible situation for you as a professor, and a nearly-criminal ripoff for the student.

  7. sp says:

    I’m a 37 yr old 3L, so my experience doesn’t quite mirror that of my fellow students, who mostly range from 23-28. I think what surprises me about them is their sense of entitlement, which sort of goes to the point about how they’re morphing into consumers of an educational service. And in one sense, we’re all entitled–many have, as ambimb points out, mortgaged our futures. But what I often see is whiny students who expect to be spoon fed to a point beyond what should be expected Return on Investment. And maybe I’m just projecting, but absent a few glaring examples, such as too-long-tenured professors who were mailing it in, my experience has been better than the experiences related to me by my fellow students. I attribute this to the fact that I sit up front so I can’t drift off, nor can I be distracted by the laptop activity that goes on (I type my notes on a Palm Pilot with portable keyboard). I also pick my professors with some care–I read the student evaluations from past years and talk to other students. I don’t expect to be entertained because that’s not why I’m there–if you do the reading with a critical eye, you’ll inevitably get something out of your professor. That all said, some professors are just better at teaching than others. The best ones know the material inside out and can argue in both directions. They’re interesting because they’re *interested* themselves–students see right through professors who are disgusted or bored with the subject matter. While it helps to be likeable, not every professor will be, and so students sometimes have to adjust how they’re going to learn relative to the professor’s style. This is where the sense of the entitlement I spoke of often manifests itself–refusal to make those adjustments. And it’s those students who will be most disappointed by the real world.

  8. Bruce says:

    Great post, and comments. Several quibbles, but just one for now: Lots of people cite the “MTV causes short attention spans” hypothesis — but is there actually any research to support it? Or does it merely serve to give students, who have always had short attention spans, an *excuse* to have short attention spans?

  9. Seth R. says:

    I think the large lecture hall format may be becoming outdated (if it was ever a good way of doing things …).

    I would like to see a greater focus on professors meeting with smaller study groups (maybe 6 to 8 students meeting privately with the professor for maybe a half-hour of discussion of policy issues behind the law. Questions on black-letter law could be handled on an email listserve with the professor fielding student questions.

    Expensive casebooks could be phased out in favor of condensed sources of black-letter law (or hornbooks) supplemented by online Lexis/Westlaw access to select cases and law review articles. The professor could even run a blog to supplement discussions with students submitting comments.

    Adjunct faculty and experienced law practitioners could easily be introduced into the school’s online presence running their own blogs or listserves.

    If you want to embrace the new way things are being done, you can’t just shoehorn technology into outdated classroom models. Just slapping up a powerpoint presentation isn’t going to cut it.

    I completely agree that the lecture hall style panders to the lowest common denominator.

  10. Poor Student says:

    I’ve wrestled with this a fair. I’m in my 4th year of attending law school in the evenings. I go to a fully accredited ABA law school. I haven’t been to a class in about 3 semesters, not counting finals. Not a single class. Before this current streak, I attended about once a week, or every other week. While I am not in the top 10%, I’m in no danger of not meeting my graduation requirements (unless someone notices that the ABA requires 80% attendance).

    I’m embarassed by my treatment of law school, and I’m sure that my behavior with attract the ire of others. That’s ok. I feel as if I’ve cheated myself out of the value available. I do not understand the concepts as well as the top students. I do not articulate my thoughts as well as students who have spent their time absorbing the ideas. I have no contacts for my career, and I have no recommendations. I pass my classes, and I will likely pass the bar. I will also likely be years behind a law student who embraced the experience, and who knows if I’ll ever get employed as a lawyer.

    Why have I not attended? I’m a 31 year old divorced father of two who has worked (successfully) as a systems engineer. My child support payments are substantial. I have to continuely work many hours in a demanding environment to make the amount of money required to meet my obligations. That time in the classroom had better be damned worthwhile everytime I step in there or I get frustrated with the waste of time. I could use that time reading or writing or even sleeping.

    What makes a worthwhile class time? I don’t know. I think that practicle applications of abstract principals or an analysis of the subject matter would be very beneficial. An hour and a half of book reports, and instructor lecturing do not make my list.

    I do feel entitled to a bit of engagment for the instructors. Don’t babysit me. Don’t spend the entire class discussing the fact patterns of the readings. Let’s spend 2 minutes on the facts and an hour on the substance and how that relates to other aspects of the law. Whatever the instructor wants to do is their choice, but I have to make a decision on what is an appropriate use of my time.

  11. lawprof says:

    I teach at a top 10 law school and work moderately hard to make my lectures informative and interesting. Nonetheless, if I were one of my students, I’d be bored silly and would stop going. Certainly, when I was a law student, also at a top school, I skipped class frequently (in some cases virtually all the time).

    Why? Because for the most part, I don’t find large classes or lectures an efficient or effective way to learn. I find reading and conversation illuminating, but listening to lectures or socratic discourse a huge waste of time, wildly inefficient.

    I suspect that few students learn well in such settings, but they continue to dominate in American law schools. It frankly amazes me that mroe students don’t skip class all the time!

    As a pre-tenured professor, I confess that I lack the courage to just refuse to teach such classes. If I had my druthers, I’d only teach seminars.

    My only complaint about “kids today” has to do with seminars. Maybe they’re too used to lectures– but I often find students who, in seminars, just sit back with pensive expressions on their faces, waiting for someone else to say something smart– then they take notes! Students, if you’re in a seminar, talk, please, please, please: seminars can’t succeed unless the responsibility for discussion is shared between professor and students.

  12. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but can someone give me a citation for the proposition that “kids today” have shorter attention spans? Remember, “kids today” has to include the current group in law school (i.e. me), not the seven year olds who never had life without the internet. (There’s at least as big a generational gap between kids fifteen years younger than me and myself as there is between myself and those thirty years older than me.)

    Moreover, grand sweeping pronouncements of the type found in some of the comments here aren’t going to get anyone very far. If there’s anything the education schools have taught us, it’s that everyone learns differently and that everyone has teaching styles that fit them better (and are thus more effective for them). “Lecture is outdated” sounds all too true to those of us who can’t deal with lecture, but there are plenty of people who love nothing more than a good, stimulating lecture – and they do exist! Just because you’re unsure how to deliver one doesn’t mean they’re impossible.

    And Socratic “dialogue” certainly has its place, but I wonder if Profs. should be getting back to first principles: are you acting more like Socrates, or more like Prof. Perini?

    Don’t forget, also, that there are more than just “visual” learners and, I don’t know, “audial” learners (?). When I was getting my M.Ed., they showed us a chart with about eight different “learning styles” researchers tended to group things into now. Some of these, like tactile learners, may be beyond hope in the law school classroom.

    Here’s the real question: in 1L classes (where this discussion seems most important, since students can’t choose to attend seminars and clinics instead of large lecture classes), what is your goal as a teacher? Are you teaching them the body of contracts law? Property?

    Professors ought to remember that the main purpose of these classes is (I hope) to guide students toward thinking analytically about problems in these areas, working toward untangling the knots of difficult legal situations, and *not* just remembering how the Statute of Frauds works.

  13. Recent Grad says:

    Just to register a dissenting opinion, I’ve always really enjoyed large lecture (or Socratic-style) classes, and find that the inevitably somewhat theatrical aspect helps me to pay attention. Plus, the problem with a small seminar is that students dominate the discussion rather than the professor. Even if the students are well prepared (which they’re often not), I’d rather learn from the professor.

  14. Anonymous Genius says:

    Like John Jenkins and Aaron A., I was a top student at a top law school who found law school easy and boring. In my opinion, the biggest problem facing legal education today is that not enough is being done to challenge true geniuses like me. I also think the Soduku is too easy.

  15. mpanzera says:

    @ Jason: I found this on wikipedia:

    In a study of 2,600 children ages 1 to 3 published in 2004, a team of researchers from University of Washington found that early exposure to television may have a negative impact on attention span. [citing an editorial about the UW study by Suzanne Fields in The Washington Times] It has also been suggested that internet browsing can have a similar effect. [citing BBC article on how the internet affects attention span]

    I don’t know whether the studies are valid, but there they are.